Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review Bias

If you’re an author or book reviewer, I’m sure you’ve given a lot of thought to the subject of book reviews. A bad review can ruin an author’s week, while a good review can inspire an author to finish that next book in his series. As an author, I know how important a book review can be. I know how sensitive authors can be when it comes to reviews. I’ve often wondered if reviewing books is a conflict of interest for an author. Can I really give an impartial review when part of me is reluctant to hurt an author’s feelings? This is something I’ve struggled with off and on for a couple of years. While there were times I’ve considered giving up reviews, I decided against it.

As an author, I’m biased. This is a fact. I do allow my feelings to cloud my judgment. But I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. All readers are biased. We all bring our baggage to the table. It’s impossible NOT to be biased when we read and review a book. Every experience we have as a human being changes who we are, not only as a person, but as a reader.

I’ve often heard non-author friends say they won’t read books that depict any sort of child abuse. Before they became parents, they could read such books, but since having children, they found they could no longer do so. This is a bias they bring to the table every time they pick up a book. If they happen to start reading a book and come across a scene where a child is being abused, they might stop reading. They might give the book a bad review based on their own perception of the book. Does this make them biased? Sure. Does this mean they should stop reviewing books? Absolutely not.

A reader who happens to be a doctor will probably leave a negative review for a book that inaccurately depicts medical procedures. A social worker might leave a harsh review if the book they just finished reading is riddled with inaccuracies about the foster care system. Your police procedural thriller might get five-star reviews from police officers who are impressed that you did your research, while you might get one-star reviews from readers who are upset because the scenes in your books are contrary to what they learned watching television. While one reader might hate your book because the main character doesn’t spend enough time with her children, another reader might love the fact that your book’s romantic heroine is a single mom. Every aspect of who we are–our profession, personality, past, hobbies, interests, and even our religion–will affect the way we perceive a book.

For example, I read Fifty Shades of Grey despite the fact that I knew I probably wouldn’t like it. A friend from book club LOVED the book and insisted that I try it. I ended up hating it more than I ever could have anticipated. I hated it more than any book I’ve ever read. When I began reading the book, I could tune out all the negative things I’d heard about the book from other authors and readers. What I could NOT tune out were my own personal feelings and life experiences that made me detest nearly every aspect of the hero’s and heroine’s characters. I hated their relationship because in my opinion, it was abusive. I hated Anastasia. I hated Christian. I hated the fact that some of the scenes were straight out of Twilight. I could find no redeeming qualities in the book. When I told my book club friend how I felt about the book, she said, “Well, you have to read the rest of the series to see how the relationship evolves.” I told her I’d take a pass. Even though I hated Fifty Shades, I still like and respect my book club friend. I can understand why she might like the book because she has had different life experiences than I have had. My one-star rating of the book is valid and justified, just like her five-star rating is valid and justified. We just happened to disagree on that particular book.

As authors, we have to brace ourselves for negative reviews. Sometimes readers will hate our books because we overuse a word they don’t like. Sometimes they hate our book because some aspect of our main character’s personality reminds them of a girl who bullied them in high school. They can hate our books for any reason–or for no reason at all. Sometimes a reader doesn’t gel with a certain book and they hate it, but can’t quite put their finger on why they reacted so strongly to it.

As a reader, I”m not always going to like every book I read. When I write a negative review, I try to offer helpful criticism. I also try to point out areas of the book I did enjoy. But sometimes, my strong dislike for a book makes it difficult for me to find a nugget of goodness within the pages. While some authors believe a reader should refrain from reviewing if they can’t find anything nice to say, I disagree. Every reader has the right to give their heartfelt, honest opinion of a book they’ve read. As long as the reader doesn’t cross the line and become verbally abusive toward the author, they have every right to say whatever they want about the book.

Authors, how do you feel about negative reviews? As an author, do you think you judge books more harshly than the average reader?

Reviewers, do you leave negative reviews? Have you ever had a strong negative reaction to a book that everyone else seemed to like?

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